Bush & Paterson
Builders of 19th Century Kalamazoo
Arguably one of the most impactful businesses in Kalamazoo from the 1860s until the 1890s was the contractor duo of Frederick Bush and Thomas Paterson. Their sway upon the city’s economic growth in the post-Civil War years, when Kalamazoo was quickly evolving from a bustling, pioneer village to a thriving industrial city, should not go underappreciated. According to the
Kalamazoo Gazette, the firm had built four-fifths of the brick structures in Kalamazoo by 1882.
Frederick Bush (left) and Thomas Paterson (right). Compendium of History and Biography of Kalamazoo County, Mich. 1906. Local History Room.
“A better example of the American right to abandon a lower station in life and climb to the top would be difficult to find.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 August 1950 A Dynamic Partnership
Frederick Bush was born in 1832 in the village of Ashwick, England. He and his family immigrated to the United States five years later. By 1848, he was apprenticing as a carpenter under Amos Kerr. Weary of life in Kalamazoo and looking for new opportunities, Bush relocated to New York City in the early 1850s to ply his trade in the building industry. Returning to Kalamazoo in 1855, he reached out to Thomas Paterson, whom he met while working in New York City. Paterson was born in 1828 of Scottish descent and raised in New York City. Undoubtedly, the two men hit it off, agreeing to give the contractor business a go. Rather than stay in the east where competition would be far more cut-throat, Paterson instead came west to Kalamazoo to join Bush. The two young entrepreneurs were unknown and without a business office, but obviously eager to find success.
“A warm friendship sprang up between the two young men, which lasted until the death of Mr. Bush. The tie between them was as close as that of brothers, and in all the years of their acquaintance their relations, both business and social, were of the most pleasant”
Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan and Van Buren Counties, 1892
Their first contract involved the building of a home on Asylum Road (later Oakland Drive). The first several years were lean ones, which forced the builders often to accept payment through trade rather than cash. But after three years, they were able to afford the comforts of a business office, located on North Burdick. It would not be long before the two builders’ business grew into the most successful contractor firm in southwest Michigan.
By the 1880s, the firm employed between 50 and 80 men. Over the next three decades, a large portion of the principle commercial and civic buildings of Kalamazoo were raised by the robust employees of Bush & Paterson. Those structures that still remain include the
Wood-Upjohn House, Ladies’ Library Association Building, the Michigan Central Railroad Depot (aka Metro Transit Center), the Lawrence and Chapin Iron Works Building, and the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad Depot.
In addition to their building projects, the two men ventured into other commercial interests that included lumber, banking, public utilities, manufacturing of building supplies (sash windows, moldings, doors, blinds) the production of billiard and piano legs, and railway construction. The success of Bush & Paterson provided a wealth of private capital that was used to improve the local economy. According to authors Larry Massie and Peter J. Schmitt…
“When local firms fell on hard times, Bush & Paterson intervened. After the cement factory closed in 1881, Frederick Bush bought the plant at a sheriff’s sale and reopened next year. The Kalamazoo Knitting Works employed 50 young women making 160 dozen stockings daily in 1880. Two years later Bush & Paterson forestalled a move to Milwaukee and reorganized the company under their own control. In 1882 windmill orders outran production, so Bush & Paterson retooled to build nearly 1,100 for local firms. The
Telegraph called the company “the oldest and most extensive” building firm in the state, attributing its success to capital, skilled workers, owners who “study their business as a science,” and, of course, “the thousand labor-saving machines which have revolutionized the order of things.”
Kalamazoo: The Place Behind the Products, p.93-94
Bush died while serving as mayor of Kalamazoo in 1892, and is buried in
Mountain Home Cemetery. Paterson retired shortly after his longtime partner’s death. Paterson passed away 4 July 1918.
Structures Built by Bush & Paterson in Kalamazoo
Benjamin Austin House, 1856
National Driving Park fair buildings, 1859
Corporation Hall, 1867
County Jail, 1869
Frank Street School, 1870
Lawrence and Chapin Iron Works Building, 1870-1872
Addition to the
Michigan Female Seminary, 1874
Grand Rapids and Indiana Depot, 1874
Wood-Upjohn House, 1877-1878
Ladies’ Library Association Building, 1878
Academy of Music, 1881
First Presbyterian Church (Third Church), 1885
Desenberg Building, 1886
United States Post Office, 1890
Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, December 2023